In Noah Baumbach’s 1995 debut feature Kicking and Screaming, everyone is having trouble leaving the comfortable nest of college. Grover (Josh Hamilton) pines, “You know, despite my efforts, my intense efforts to do nothing, things happen anyway.” His best friend Max (Chris Eigeman), feels the same. “Eight hours ago, I was Max Belmont, English major, college senior,” he says. “Now I am Max Belmont, who does nothing.” But these guys are not lazy; they’re just scared of stepping into adulthood, a sentiment deeply felt by all college graduates. Kicking and Screaming attempts to zoom in on that fear, showing us how post-college ennui is a universal feeling – how the anxiety of now knowing whether we’ll accomplish our goals isn’t just felt by Grover and Max.
When we first meet Grover on the night of his graduation, he assumes he’s got it all figured out. He dreams of becoming a writer in Brooklyn, living in an elite apartment with his writer girlfriend Jane (Olivia d’Abo) – until she tells him she’s been accepted into a fellowship program in Prague. Feeling backstabbed and heartbroken, Grover resorts to what he knows best: cynicism, hoping that somehow Jane will see how devastated he is and decide to not go with her plan. “Selfish girl abandons helpless boy for overrated country,” he whines. But Jane, refusing to face the emotional paralysis of post-college life if she doesn’t go, has made up her mind. Grover, directionless, has nothing to do but move in with his equally adrift group of friends, Max, Otis (Carlos Jacott), and Skippy (Jason Wiles), to live the life as they know best: back as “college students.”
On the surface, Kicking and Screaming is a talkie comedy observing these four overtly-intellectual white men as they wander their old campus. They visit the bar where they used to hang; they try to score some college chicks, hoping that the sex will ease up their anxiety. The structure of the story might remind you of Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1990) and the Gen-X characters of Reality Bites (1994), though Baumbach’s writing and direction mostly evoke the cleverness of Whit Stillman. But at its core, Kicking and Screaming is much more poignant, as it also deals with the topic of post-college ennui that, let’s face it, we can all relate to.
Look no further than Grover, who doesn’t quite know what to do with his life after Jane left him. Instead of trying to find a way to readjust his goals, or to continue living it but without Jane, Grover chooses to go back to the comfort of his past life, haunting the campus hallways as an adult who has no idea how to be one yet. In this scenario, Jane’s sudden departure to Prague represents the uncertainty of adulthood. Grover, who’s used to having everything predetermined, thinks that his post-college life will be as ideal as the one he always thinks of; that every detail of his goal will be as accurate as what he always portrays. But of course, that’s not the case. “How do you make God laugh? Make a plan,” as Chet (Eric Stoltz), a local bartender who’s been an undergraduate student for ten years, notes. So when Grover realizes that his first foray into adulthood does not go exactly as planned, he starts filling his head not just with anxiety, but also with an idea of how much safer he would be if he just did nothing instead of facing the challenge of adulthood and reinventing himself.
While the fear that Grover is feeling is always present, Kicking and Screaming never has moments where he or the other characters explicitly express their ennui. But that’s part of the point; after all, these four men are in denial. Otis, despite an opportunity to continue his studies in another state, decides to work at a local video store, saying that the time difference will mess up his routine. Skippy, meanwhile, goes back to being a student, enrolling in classes he missed before but without doing the work. And worse, in Max’s case, he does nothing – aside from sleeping with Skippy’s girlfriend, Miami (Parker Posey), or making fun of his friends for the same things which happen to him. Max is so dedicated to his “do nothing” lifestyle, he even chooses to label a broken glass on his kitchen floor rather than to clean it up.
The characters in Kicking and Screaming are adults who refuse to accept change and the passing of time, not just because its unpredictability scares them, but also because of how comfortable it is to live in nostalgia. “I’m nostalgic for conversations I had yesterday,” Max despairs. “I’ve begun reminiscing events before they even occur.” This is made even more explicit by Grover’s flashbacks to meeting and falling for Jane as if he’s reliving those happier moments from before to cope with the pain he feels in the present.We’ve all been there, terrified of stepping into the real world. And at that moment of life, we tend to cling to the safety of the past because the future is uncertain, and being rejected is even scarier. We fill our heads with fear over things we haven’t even dared to dip our foot into yet. We’re anxious even about the smallest detail, freaking out of how we’re gonna achieve all the goals we’ve set for ourselves before. The main allure of Kicking and Screaming, however, is not just the timeless way it portrays post-college ennui, but also in how it shows us that we’re not dealing with this alone. After all, everyone’s been a Grover once, and it’s perfectly natural to be scared of life after graduation. But it doesn’t mean that we have to end up like him. At the end of the day, adulthood still happens, and whether we want it or not, we will still get dragged into it.